Death may be inevitable, but it shouldn't come before its time. When someone's death is caused by the wrongful act of another, the law provides that the wrongdoer is liable for monetary damages in civil court.
In every state, legislatures have passed statutes providing for this legal remedy, defining not only which loved ones are able to bring the suit as party plaintiffs, but also the extent of damages available to be awarded. There is no federal wrongful death statute.
The wrongful death statutes of each state are unique, and loved ones are wise to seek the advice of experienced legal counsel in determining their application, as well as other possible causes of action that can be filed in tandem with the wrongful death case.
For example, a wrongful death claim can accompany a medical malpractice cause of action, or a claim for damages based on product liability. In many states, claims can also be concurrently made with victims' assistance funds, which have been established to assist loved ones who have lost a family provider. Wrongful death claims can also accompany civil actions based upon intentional conduct that is being simultaneously pursued by criminal authorities:
- The family of Ron Goldman successfully instituted a wrongful death case against O.J. Simpson and was awarded $38 million dollars, even though Mr. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Mr. Goldman in the criminal proceedings; and
- The family of Bonnie Lee Blakely was awarded $30 million in a wrongful death suit brought against actor Robert Blake, even though he was likewise found innocent of his wife's murder.
Personal injury attorneys file lawsuits for families based on wrongful death claims. They seek a variety of damages, such as: lost income; loss of care, protection, and companionship; intentional infliction of emotional distress; pain and suffering; lost pension, health insurance and other benefits; and sometimes, punitive damages. Each state has its own statute of limitations applying to its wrongful death statute, which requires that claims be filed within a certain time or they will be barred. Some of these deadlines are short.
Most states allow punitive damages as part of the wrongful death claim. Punitive damages are "punishment" damages, designed not to compensate for actual damages of the victim but instead to send a message both to the defendant and others that the conduct at issue is unacceptable in our society. Punitive damages have resulted in safer working conditions and have established standards of care for professionals in a variety of areas, as well as helping to define product safety standards.
Currently, there is a debate whether unborn, viable fetuses can be made the basis of a wrongful death statute by their parents. There is also a growing disagreement between the states on the amount of monetary compensation parents should receive for the wrongful death of a minor child. Another controversial issue surrounds the application of wrongful death statutes to same-sex couples under the statutory definition of surviving spouse.
Another trend developing in state case law, outside of any statute, is the awarding of wrongful death damages when a pet is injured or killed by a person or another animal. These wrongful death cases are gaining respect across the country, with awards being given in the form of economic damages (involving purchase price or replacement value of the animal), as well as budgetary expenses (training costs, breeding costs) and other assorted actual damages. Emotional distress and loss of companionship are also being sought and awarded in significant amounts. Tennessee is already recognizing non-economic damages in these wrongful death cases and 11 state legislatures are considering statutory recognition of them.